Once upon a time, most of television was like Poker Face, the new Peacock drama created by Glass Onion’s Rian Johnson and starring Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne. It is a purely episodic, case-of-the-week show. Each episode sets up its own specific story, which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale finds a way to conclude by the end of the hour. There are some extremely loose ongoing threads, but you could in theory watch every episode but the first in any order and get the same enjoyment out of each. It is a show that leans enormously on the appeal of its star, and on the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each individual story so interesting that you will want to come back for more without any real hint of To Be Continued.
For decades, this is how TV worked. Then along came The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc., and suddenly case of the week was passé — simplistic stuff from a time before we knew TV could be better. Serialization was the new king, and if each episode wasn’t in some way contributing to a larger story, what even was the point?
In many ways, television has gained a lot from this shift. The best shows of this century have been able to aim higher, dig deeper, and take incredible advantage of the sheer amount of time offered by telling one story about one set of characters for years on end. But in other ways, we’ve really lost something. Serialization has become as much of a formula as purely episodic storytelling used to be. Too many showrunners — whether they’re screenwriters trying to stretch out the plot of a movie they couldn’t sell, or just someone who took all the wrong lessons from watching The Sopranos, or thought it would be easy to just copy Breaking Bad’s structure— mistakenly assume an ongoing narrative is fundamentally interesting just because it runs for a whole season, or a whole series. Complexity is treated as rewarding for its own sake, rather than because it adds any value to the story being told. So we get these long, amorphous sludges — “It’s a 10-hour movie!” — that forget how to entertain because all they care about is forward momentum.
Thank goodness, then, for Johnson, Lyonne, and everyone else involved in making Poker Face. It deploys all the best elements of the before times, but in a way that makes the show feel completely modern — in the same way that Knives Out and Glass Onion are inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty period pieces.
Charlie, we learn, was once an unbeatable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability: she can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually, she ran afoul of the wrong people, and now works as a cocktail waitress at a Nevada casino, just trying to stay out of trouble. But as is the case with these kinds of shows, trouble inevitably keeps finding her, always in the form of a murder that only she can solve, because she knows that the killer is full of it.
The format is a mix of the classic Columbo open mystery and the approach Johnson has taken with the Benoit Blanc films. Each episode opens with 10-15 minutes without Charlie, as we meet the murderers and their victims and see how and why the killing took place. Then the stories rewind to show how Charlie already knew these characters, before we finally get to her figuring out what happened, as well as a way to make the bad guys see justice — even though Charlie isn’t a cop and, in fact, has to stay clear of the law because the events of the first episode make her a fugitive who has to travel anonymously from town to town. (The sole ongoing element is that a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, is chasing her across the country due to the events of the pilot, but even that is relatively minor and infrequent in the episodes given to critics.)
The settings and kinds of guest stars vary wildly from one episode to the next. In one, she has a job at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s a roadie for a one-hit wonder heavy metal band where Chloë Sevigny is the aging frontwoman desperate for a comeback.
Though there was already a bit of Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo in Lyonne’s Russian Doll performance, Charlie is a very different kind of character: friendly and curious about the people and the world around her. It is an utterly magnetic and winning performance, where she is just as good on her own — say, tasting various types of wood to identify one of Lil Rel’s lies — as she is interacting with terrific guest stars like Hong Chau (as an anti-social long-haul trucker) or Ellen Barkin (as an Eighties TV star now performing in a dinner theater).
And like the Blanc movies, this is a show that uses every part of the buffalo. No matter how disposable a scene seems — say, Charlie having an amusing encounter with a stranger at a garbage can — it will eventually turn out to have some kind of significance to the plot. The whole thing is damned clever — including the many ways it manages to demonstrate the limits of being a human lie detector — and light on its feet.
That said, because shows like Poker Face have become so rare — or, at least, ones like it that are also executed this well — there is a risk of wildly overpraising it. Like any episodic drama, some episodes are stronger than others, particularly in the Lyonne-free opening sequences. The fifth episode, for instance, features Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former Seventies revolutionaries who are now the two toughest, meanest broads at their retirement community; the combination of that premise and these great veteran actors is so strong, I almost forgot I was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, involving a trio of people working the night shift at shops next to a truck stop, really only takes off once that familiar mop of strawberry blonde hair comes into view. And even when she turns up, the flashback segments may occasionally leave you impatient to get to the part where Charlie begins poking holes in the killer’s story. (Columbo episodes tended to run between 70 and 100 minutes, and thus had more than enough time for Falk and the guest stars to interact; after a 67-minute debut episode that has to establish Charlie’s backstory and the premise, all the others are an hour or less, sometimes significantly less.)
But goddamn, what a relief and delight it is to see a TV show that actually wants to be a TV show, and that knows how to do that at this high a level. Johnson and Lyonne have said that they’d like to make Poker Face for as long as they possibly can. Here’s hoping they get a chance. This one’s wonderful.
The first four episodes of Poker Face begin streaming January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first six of 10 episodes.